Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Paul Harriss To Contest Franklin

A grenade has been tossed into the already explosive race for Franklin at next year's Tasmanian state election with the announcement that Paul Harriss MLC will (if preselected) resign his Upper House seat and run for Franklin for the Liberals.

The Electorate

Generally the signs from polling have been that the Liberals are on track to win three seats at least in each of Bass, Braddon and Lyons, are likely to only win two in Denison and may win either two or three in Franklin.  What makes Franklin so tight is that if the Liberals do win three seats they will need to unseat at least one of Premier Lara Giddings,  David O'Byrne or Greens Leader Nick McKim.  Yet my interpretation of recent polling is that the Liberals are running at very close to the support level needed to dislodge one of these three.

The difficulty for the Liberals in Franklin is leakage.  Will Hodgman polled 1.90 quotas in his own right out of a party total of 2.47 in 2010.  He may well poll even more this time around.  I will be surprised if any of Jacquie Petrusma, Paul Harriss or Bernadette Black poll close to a quota.  If two of them are going to win then they will be doing so from Will Hodgman's surplus, plus the votes of the unsuccessful Liberal candidates.  Between them the two potential Liberal winners might well be needing well over a quota in preferences to win.  This compares with McKim, Giddings and O'Byrne, who between them will poll nearly all the votes for their tickets, with probably very little opportunity for leakage.

In 2010 the Liberals lost 651 votes (.06 of a quota) in leakage directly on Will Hodgman's surplus. It may not sound like much, but in a close race that sort of loss is a big deal.

There is not likely to be as strong a swing in Franklin as in other electorates.  Partly this is because Labor underperformed in Franklin in 2010, in part because they were carrying two incumbents elected on recounts in the previous parliament, but who were not big vote-getters.

Formally preselected Liberal candidates for Franklin thus far are the incumbents Petrusma and Hodgman and Kingborough Councillor Nic Street.

The Candidate

Paul Harriss contested Franklin for the Liberals in the 1996 state election.  He polled 3040 primaries and came fairly close to winning a seat, essentially losing to independent Bruce Goodluck by 812 votes at the critical exclusion point.  Harriss then contested the Legislative Council seat of Huon in the same year, winning easily with a 33.8% primary vote in a field of six (no-one else topped 20%, and the flow of preferences saw Harriss finish up with 59% of the vote to Flora Fox's 32% and the remainder exhausted or undistributed.) In 2002 Harriss was expected by some to be strongly challenged by former Labor MHA Fran Bladel but won massively with 49.4% to Bladel's 28.6% in a field of four.  Given the latter result especially it was a slight surprise that Harriss "only" won 62:38 against Green Mark Rickards in 2008.

Paul Harriss has long been considered to still be sympathetic to the Liberal Party and my analysis of his voting patterns last year placed him well within the "main conservative cluster" of the Legislative Council, which usually votes with the Liberal Party.  He is known as an an opponent of the forestry peace deal process, which he has repeatedly criticised, and received some flak after declaring that he had accepted a trip paid for by Ta Ann.  (Though not as much as he might have received had he not declared it!)

Harriss was prominent very early in his Legislative Council career when he provided the crucial vote to enable the lifting of Tasmania's anti-gay laws in 1997.  (He did, however, then throw the homophobes a bone by voting in favour of a Putinesque amendment to outlaw the promotion of  homosexuality, which fortunately failed.  But that was a long time ago ...)  More recently in the LegCo's same-sex marriage debate, Harriss appeared to be among the more moderate opponents of the bill, one of the few expressing no opposition to federal same-sex marriage.  I say "appeared" because Harriss has a cautious, measured and distinctively cagey parliamentary speaking style on some contentious issues.   He's more forthright on social media apparently, receiving flak from the Mental Health Council after describing a joke that implied Greens supporters have mental disorders as "Gold".  Greens view him as their most abrasive and divisive opponent in the LegCo and Nick McKim has wasted no time attacking Harriss as a "forestry dinosaur" in an amusing spray. "The sound of chainsaws ripping through a World Heritage Area is music to Paul Harriss’ ears", says McKim, and I am not entirely sure whether Harriss would disagree. 

This week, Harriss took a moderate position on abortion law reform, eventually voting for it to pass after supporting some amendments.

The Mechanics

Paul Harriss would have been up for re-election to the Legislative Council in May 2014 anyway.  Resignation of his Legislative Council seat is compulsory for him to be a candidate in the state election (Electoral Act S 76).  Under S66 of the Electoral Act his Legislative Council seat will be vacant from the time he resigns until it would have come up for election anyway (probably two or three months.)  The Governor has the right to decide to hold the by-election for his seat earlier, but there is no reason to exercise that right.  (Holding a by-election on the same day as the state election would save money but create confusion).   A precedent of sorts was set in 1992 when Hobart MLC Hank Petrusma resigned from the LegCo to contest the state election at the head of his Advance Tasmania Party.  The attempt attracted much the same line of speculation that PUP are attracting now, but failed miserably.  Petrusma recontested his resigned seat at a by-election held alongside the year's scheduled LegCo elections, but was defeated.

Attorney-General Brian Wightman has said Harriss should resign now.   However, if Harriss did resign before the end of the year, it would result in an extra by-election being held at some time in the next few months (not earlier than mid-December) to fill a seat that would fall vacant in May, at great cost for very little benefit and probably with a pitiable turnout and great resentment by the time of the second poll.  

Of course, the situation of a Legislative Councillor elected as an independent running for the state election as a Liberal creates yet another amusing angle on the whole saga of supposedly independent MLCs with Liberal links (see my favourite article on this here site, What Is An Independent Liberal?).  However, there are past examples of MLCs even serving under a formal party identification other than the one they were elected under (joining, leaving or being expelled from a party) and if the voters overwhelmingly do not like it they will have ample opportunity to demonstrate their judgement in March.  Wightman has also said that if Will Hodgman does not tell Harriss to quit now, he "will show Tasmanians that the Liberals are more than happy to allow party candidates to masquerade as pretend independents when it suits them."  I believe that the Liberals are indeed more than happy to allow this and have a view that most of "their" voters don't really care.

It is possible for Harriss to lose in Franklin and then recontest Huon in May.   If he did this he would be significantly weakened by having stood down before his previous term had completed.  I expect he would instead retire from politics.  In either case we are now facing a much more interesting Legislative Council election for Huon than seemed likely until now. 

The Prospects

While Harriss' past electoral form guide is impressive, it is also the case that he has not contested an election against someone capable of beating him in eleven years so we will have to see how he adapts to modern campaigning for a large electorate.  There are not many precedents for Legislative Councillors running for lower house seats for a major party.  One successful attempt was by Peter Hodgman, who held the same seat Harriss now holds for twelve years, and who then topped the poll for Franklin in the House of Assembly in 1986 with nearly 9000 votes.  However, it is likely the Hodgman name contributed greatly to this.  Given the huge swag of votes likely to go to Will Hodgman, I don't expect Harriss to poll nearly that much, and the real question is not what he polls on primaries, but what he and the other Liberals have after the distribution of Will Hodgman's surplus. 

At this stage I consider it unclear whether Harriss will be elected, firstly because there is still no real basis for confidence about whether the Liberals will win two seats or three, and secondly because it is possible to envisage Harriss either winning or missing out in either case.  That said I would consider the election of all of Will Hodgman, Jacquie Petrusma and Bernadette Black together a minor surprise (I think Petrusma and Black compete for some of the same vote), and while Black's federal tilt has given her a raised profile, I also don't believe it was all that successful a campaign.

In terms of the net effects of Harriss' run on the Liberal's chances of winning three seats, the obvious plus is that he is a high-profile experienced candidate with good name recognition.  He also should appeal to a sector of the electorate (voters annoyed about the forest industry downturn) that is important to the Liberals' prospects, especially if (as rumoured) Michael Hirst from forest-peace-deal protest group Give It Back is given the bone as a prospective candidate.  (Update: With five preselections now announced for Lyons and Hirst's name not among them it is indeed looking like Hirst has been omitted, with Guy Barnett, Martyn Evans and Bertrand Cadart all endorsed alongside sitting Liberals Mark Shelton and Rene Hidding.)

The main risk factor is the candidate's abrasive reputation on forestry and slightly controversial track record, but unless it manifests itself as a serious campaign incident I doubt that there is enough there for anyone to care.  The other downside that should be flagged is the possibility of the Liberals having an embarrassment of riches.  For a team running for three seats, the ideal setup for the election itself was shown by Labor in 2006 - three very strong candidates backed by a couple of foot-soldiers.  But this is not so good down the track if a MHA resigns.  In Franklin, the Liberals run some risk that their 4th candidate will have a lot of votes to transfer when excluded, and hence a lot to lose by way of exhaust if it is close. 

I am not so convinced that prospective Liberal voters will agree with McKim that Harriss is an industry "dinosaur", much as McKim's own audience will enjoy a laugh at these remarks.  It is true that the industry is in general getting with the program of the forestry peace deal, but there is a large degree of reluctance, resentment and feeling of coercion in this process and there are plenty who long for a return to the industry as it was.  The federal election booth analysis for Franklin shows very much the same thing as that for Lyons, with double-digit swings against Labor in timber booths but much smaller swings generally (with a few exceptions elsewhere).  The booths from Huonville south on the western side are all within Harriss' LegCo electorate, they all thumped Labor and the Greens with monster swings at the federal election, and they will all do so again in the state poll.

Whether or not he is successful, I think the preselection of Harriss will slightly improve Liberal chances of pulling off the very challenging task of dislodging one of the Labor/Green incumbents.

Update (Nov 27): Black Out: Bernadette Black is now not running so it is now very likely that Hodgman, Petrusma and Harriss (if preselected) will be the Liberals' three most prominent candidates.  This gets rid of the "embarrassment of riches" issue mentioned above. 

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